Seeker of Hope: Works by Jia Aili

Jia Aili Untitled (无题), 2011, Oil on canvas, 200 x 290 cm. Artist Collection.

As Jia Aili grew up in the 1980s, it seemed as though post-Mao Zedong China was well on its way into transforming itself into a superpower, leaving in its wake the trauma of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, struggling more with material trappings and economic growth rather than ideological fulfilment. These reforms and attitudes quickly penetrated across China’s vast landscapes, accompanied by a rising contemporary aesthetic movement – or perhaps better known as the Chinese avant-garde – that expressed modernisation’s boons and banes through a visual language that is first gleaned from 2 centuries’ worth of Western cultural learning and development, then later applied to local cultural conditions.[1]

A common theme that ran through the ouevre of those who worked within the cultural infrastructure of the first few decades following the revolution was the critical documentation of the tension between tradition and modernisation, and the personal and the collective as China navigated the stormy waters of reform and restructure. The reactionary sentiments and styles of pioneering contemporary artists such as Fang Lijun[2] and Wang Guangyi[3] resulted in works that responded to official propaganda, their visual vocabulary and conceptual ideas serving as an evolutionary springboard for those who felt that they needed to give voice to the lingering but still-potent sting of the lingering Mao-ideology. Others like Ai Weiwei investigate their country’s complex relationship with its ancient past in a time when the seeds of unrest have begun to germinate amid its stratospheric economic growth.

Jia Aili, Old Painter I (老画家1), 2008-2009, Oil on canvas, 229 x 400 cm, SAM Collection

Jia Aili however, counts himself among those in the generation of emerging artists who, not having lived through the era of cultural regression, grapple with the mindsets of their contemporaries and pay little attention to the socio-political changes in the country unlike their predecessors. Stylistically experimenting with tropes and techniques of the Western art historical canon, they depart nonetheless from the stereotype that the Chinese contemporary art is inextricably entwined with politics or social problems.

Seeker of Hope is an exhibition of this growing sentiment that Jia Aili unmistakably expresses, detailing an oeuvre that encompasses conflated hints of romanticism, symbolism and surrealism to display the extent of loneliness and solitude of those who lived under markedly differing socio-economic conditions of the last 3 decades.

Jia Aili Untitled (无题), 2010-2012, Oil on canvas, 233 x 203 cm. Artist Collection.

The ghosts of other art movements, artists and literary tropes frequently drift in and out Jia’s ouevre: the Romantic celebration of emotion and flux, the expressionist distortion and exaggeration of formal elements, the memento mori of skulls and the remorseless passage of time that dates back to Antiquity, the high-contrast chiaroscuro of Caravaggio (1571-1610) and Rembrandt (1606-69). Jia’s Untitled (2011) greenish hues echo Caspar David Friedrich’s (1774-1840) mystical landscapes, yet his astronaut series (2010-12) is anchored in the present, a reflection on China’s first atomic bomb and astronaut programme, depicted in the clear tonal contrasts of light and shade characteristic of Mannerist and Baroque works.

Jia Aili, Serbonian Bog (绝境) series, 2007, Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

In The Wasteland series (2007), perhaps a namesake of and an intertextual allusion to T.S Eliot’s grand modernist poem that is in itself a bundle of complex literary and cultural references, a naked solitary figure wades through apocalyptic ruins piled high with discarded consumer appliances[4]. Trapped in the insidious green waters of The Serbonian Bog (2007), his identity is obscured by a masked strapped over his head and his anonymity propels the despair and helplessness of the Everyman to the forefront of his canvas.

If it appears as though lofty, codified modernist tenets about the consumerist corruption of life have been drawn upon to lend credence to his paintings, Jia’s inspiration lay in fact, closer to his own reality, grounded in the economic malaise that befell the Tiexi district in Shenyang, where millions had lost their jobs in the late 1980s and 1990s. Although Jia is no fiercely-driven social critic, his lament for the forgotten towns and aimless social drift is yet another voice of discontent in a supercharged discourse surrounding the widening gap between traditions and modernisation, an ongoing iteration for years to come.


Jia Aili was born in 1979 in Dandong, and now lives and works in Beijing. He attended Lu Xun Academy of Fine Art in Shenyang in North East China. Seeker of Hope is on show at the Singapore Art Museum and is presented by Credit Suisse AG.

[1] Karen Smith, in Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China (2008) suggests that early attempts to incorporate such styles from the Western Art Historical canon were closer to imitation than innovation. The rote learning process ingrained within the Chinese system of education had, unsurprisingly, impaired individual expression.

[2] Fang’s cynical works deal with notions of political disenchantment and fractured national identity, conveyed symbolically through a bald figure that often dominates in his canvases.

[3] A leader in the Political Pop movement, Wang offers unrelenting criticism of both communism and the hypocrisy of Western commercialism.

[4] If the pre-Modernist world is said to be characterised by a sense of order and stability rooted in collective socio-religious values, the Modernist period is its reactionary opposite: a worldview that is ruled by chaotic instability in the breakdown these selfsame collective social values, leading as a result, to deep cynicism, faithlessness and fractured identity.